Packers could fall to 2-5, or rise to resurgent redemption
GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers are at one of those crossroad moments that tend to happen with every NFL season.
After a debilitating 30-27 loss to the normally-lowly but inspired Indianapolis Colts, the Packers have fallen to 2-3.
They have injury issues with their top wide receiver (Greg Jennings), top running back (Cedric Benson), top tight end (Jermichael Finley) and top defensive tackle (B.J. Raji).
Next on their schedule? Two big road challenges:
- Houston, said by many to be the best team in the NFL
- St. Louis, a squad coached by a guy who knows playoff football, Jeff Fisher, and a team that has suddenly become a playoff contender
If they fall in those games, the playoffs could be in danger before the halfway point of the season even comes.
If they come back and produce two high-quality road wins, the season is again there for the taking.
How do they get there?
1) Pass protection and receivers doing their jobs.
The Packers' world class pass offense is completely based on rhythm. It's world class when that rhythm is, as James Brown would put it, jammin'-on-the-one - as in tight, crisp movement, offensive line protection and receivers getting open when they're supposed to for Rodgers to deliver his pinpoint passes.
Defenses have turned that rhythm into something that sounds like a toddler playing drums.
They have continually disrupted the pass pocket (eg., eight first-half sacks against Seattle, five total sacks by the Colts).
They have also disrupted receivers being open.
Time and again, we've either seen Rodgers going down hard, or Rodgers having to buy time because the pin-pointness of the offense hasn't been there.
Against one of the NFL's best defenses in Houston, that will have to change.
Otherwise, J.J. Watt and company might be setting up camp in Mr. Rodgers' neighborhood too often for comfort, and not delivering him comfy sweaters.
2) Aaron Rodgers returns to being Aaron Rodgers.
Speaking of Mr. Rodgers, if you read the stats, you'll see that he has, so far, the best completion percentage of his career during this 2012 season.
Don't let that fool you.
The guy who, at his best, might just play better than any quarterback in NFL history has had a number of missed throws, overthrown receivers, thrown-away big plays that could put games away.
In other words, Aaron Rodgers is human. Rather, great-to-excellent, but at a time the Packers need his near-perfection displayed during the stretch of 19 straight wins in 357 days encompassing 2010 and 11, it's not there right now.
Against Houston, and in St. Louis against a Jeff Fisher-coached defense, that might not be good enough.
3) Defensive playmaking - and not just the Claymaker.
The thing that defined the Packers' defensive success over the past two years - their ability to cause turnovers and get key sacks, even when they bend to record-breaking yardage levels - has not been there.
Oh, sure, Clay Matthews has eight sacks after four games - on pace for a record-breaking 32 sacks.
But he can't top a defense by himself.
Charles Woodson, in his role as safety, has been pulled away from play-making roles because of the deficiencies of a young secondary that is getting better, but still has plenty of swiss cheese-style holes.
Can the Packers put him in more situations like 2009 where he could rush the passer, blow up run games and explode offenses into submission with his playmaking?
Can Nick Perry begin to resemble his skill level and - without leading with the crown of his helmet - blow up backfields and get close to matching his fellow USC Trojan Clay Matthews in productivity?
They'd better. Quickly.
4) Run blocking.
The best friend of an explosive passing game is a potent running game.
When Cedric Benson has been healthy, it's been there so far this year.
But as of Monday, he's not. Except for one big gain by Alex Green against the Colts, the Packers' run game has also extremely challenged without Benson.
To overcome that, the offensive line must improve.
It's proven that even if running backs are pedestrian at best, when an offensive line can dominate their opponent, average backs become good, and good backs can make great plays.
That takes some pressure off of Aaron Rodgers and company...and trust me, the pressure is heavily on Aaron Rodgers and company to save the season.
Especially if Benson is not healthy for the biggest road games the Packers have played since the 2010 NFL playoffs, the onus is on the offensive line.
If these four steps aren't followed through successfully, the Packers may be in a must-win situation every remaining game this year, and a 2011-style streak will be necessary just to keep their playoff hopes alive.
If they are, a 4-3 Packers team in late October could be staring at a much easier second-half schedule, a 12-4 season, or better, and a possible route back to the Lombardi Trophy.
Want proof it can happen? Check the 2011 New York Giants. Or the 2010 Packers.